Answer: Dispensationalism is defined as a method of management used by God to carry out His will, work, and purposes toward mankind. There are generally considered to be seven dispensations, although some theologians believe there are nine. Depending on the viewpoint, dispensations can number as few as three or as many as thirty-seven. For the purposes of this article, we will limit ourselves to the seven basic dispensations found in Scripture.
The first dispensation is called the Dispensation of Innocence. Found in Genesis 1:28-30and 2:15-17, this dispensation involves the period when Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden. The basis of the dispensation is obedience to God's commands to (1) replenish the earth with children, (2) subdue the earth, (3) have dominion over the animals, (4) have a vegetable diet and not eat meat, (5) care for the garden, (6) abstain from eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, (7) the warning of punishment of physical and spiritual death for disobedience. This dispensation was a short-lived and was brought to an end by the temptation of Eve and Adam by Satan, which was part of the overall plan of God.
The second dispensation is called the Dispensation of Conscience, and its duration was some 1,656 years from the time of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden until the flood (Genesis 3:8–8:22). This dispensation demonstrates what mankind will do if left to his own will and conscience which have been tainted by the inherited sin nature. The five major aspects of this dispensation are 1. a curse on the serpent, 2. a change in womanhood and childbearing, 3. a curse on nature, plants and animals—some became meat eaters, 4. man has to work and sweat to produce food because of the curse on the land, and 5. the promise of Christ as the seed who will bruise the serpent's head (Satan).
The third dispensation is the Dispensation of Human Government, beginning in Genesis 8. Now that people were born with an inherited sin nature, the world became evil and corrupt. God destroyed the world by a flood, saving just one family to start the human race over again. The worldwide flood destroyed all air-breathing and living animals, birds, and human beings. After they came out of the ark, God made promises to Noah and family as follows:
1. God will not curse the earth again.
2. Noah and family are to replenish the earth with people.
3. They shall have dominion over the animal creation.
4. They are now allowed to eat meat.
5. The Law of capital punishment is now established.
6. There never will be another flood again.
7. The sign of God's promise will be the rainbow.
But the people did not scatter and fill the earth as God had commanded. Genesis 11:7-9says there was only one language and one people and the people decided to build a tower. The building of this tower and God's dispersion of the people happened about 325 years after the flood. God decided it was time to go down and create different languages and make them move apart. Thus we see the development of different nations and different cultures that produced the different races. From this point on, there is still some direct contact with God individually but on a nationwide basis as well. Human governments now have become a reality. This dispensation does not end completely, but another dispensation starts with Abraham. Some of the terms of this dispensation are still in effect today.
The fourth dispensation, called the Dispensation of Promise, starts with the call of Abraham and includes the patriarchies and mostly ends with Moses and the exodus of the Jewish people out of Egypt, a period of some 430 years. This is God's method of developing a great nation that He has chosen to be His people to whom He gave a special task to perform (Genesis 12:1–Exodus 19:25).
Some of the terms of the Abrahamic Covenant are
1. From Abraham would come a great nation that God would bless with natural and spiritual prosperity
2. God would make Abraham’s name great
3. God would bless those that blessed Abraham’s descendants and curse those that curse him.
4. In Abraham shall all the families of the earth be blessed. This is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and His work of reconciliation.
5. The sign of the covenant is circumcision.
6. This covenant is confined to the Hebrew people and to the 12 tribes of Israel.
The fifth dispensation is called the Dispensation of Law and starts with the Exodus and is set aside with Jesus Christ, a period of some 1,491 years. This dispensation is directed only toward the Jewish nation and will start up again during the Millennium with some modifications. This new nation is designed by God to have 12 tribes, one of which (the Levites) will be the priests of God's laws given on Mt. Sinai. The law and guidelines are found in Exodus 19–23. God allowed man to govern himself under a commonwealth of laws and guidelines with a visible system of a temple worship directed by the priests. At this time, God spoke through the priests and prophets He had chosen to be His mouthpiece. A system of rituals and festivals was also devised to help the people stay true to God. This was to be a theocratic system, beginning with Moses, then Joshua, and the Judges, in which God would rule through those assigned to relate His will. Eventually, due to the people’s disobedience, the tribes end up being carried off into bondage.
The sixth dispensation is the Dispensation of Grace, represented by the New Covenant through Jesus Christ and His death on the Cross. This “Church Age” occurs between the 69th and 70th week of Daniel. It starts with the birth of Christ and ends with the Rapture of the church as revealed in 1 Thessalonians 4. This dispensation is worldwide and includes both Jews and the Gentiles. It is the divine plan of reconciliation by Christ to call people to repentance and become a part of the family of God who will spend eternity in the final state of the new heaven and earth with Him. This dispensation includes the work of the Holy Spirit indwelling believers (John 14:16-26) as the Comforter. The terms of this dispensation are simply expressed in John 3:16 and John 14:1-6. Jesus said you must be born again. This dispensation has been going on for over 2,000 years, and no one knows when it will end. We do know that it will end with the rapture of all born-again believers from the earth to go to heaven with Christ, followed by the judgments of God which will last for 7 years. During this time of judgment will be revealed the Antichrist, the false prophet, the mark of the beast, and an all-out war against the Jews and anyone who will not worship the idol the Antichrist sets up in the temple. During this time many people will come to Christ and be born again and many will die for their faith in Christ. This dispensation ends with the battle of Armageddon and the death of all non-believers.
The seventh dispensation is called the Millennial Kingdom of Christ and will last for 1,000 years as Christ comes to set up His throne on earth and rule as a visible presence. This becomes the fulfillment of the prophecy to the Jewish nation that He will return and be their Messiah and King. The only people allowed to enter the Kingdom are the born-again believers who were able to survive the seven years of tribulation. No unsaved person is allowed access into this kingdom. Satan is put into the bottomless pit but will be loosed after the 1,000 years to reorganize a great army and wage war against Christ and His followers. This period ends with the supernatural death of all non-believers, after which comes the final judgment of Christ on the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:11-14). The old world and earth are destroyed by fire and the New Heaven and New Earth of Revelation 21 and 22 will begin. This is the perfect age and the eternal state or heaven in which all believers will remain forever.
Recommended Resource: Dispensationalism by Charles Ryrie.